The Translucent Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century Glassmakers Offer Collectors a Shimmering Array of Choices
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Art glass is a medium of intriguing paradoxes. It is translucent yet dense. Dark and opaque until brought to brilliant life through illumination. Brittle in form yet fluid in appearance. And, of course, it is at once delicate and robust. But whatever its appearance, art glass is sublime for its intricate details.
Christie's glass specialist Lars Rachen is at the auction house, sitting amid hundreds of pieces of glass. He selects two made by the Tiffany Studios and places them on a table. Both are onion vases, with round, bulbous bases and long, slender necks. While their form is the same, they could never be mistaken for identical twins. Both were treated with powdered colors to create iridescence (a bright reflective sheen
that is lightly textured), but one is orange and the other is gold. Logically, the rich gold-colored vase would be more expensive. But in the glass market that isn't always the case. Tiffany used the color gold more often, and the workmanship on the orange vase is better.
"The gold is worth $15,000 to $20,000, the orange one is $20,000 to $30,000," says Rachen, who heads Christie's 20th Century Decor-ative Works of Art department. "The color is brighter and more rare. If you look at the gold one, the iridescence is less consistent--it's flaky. The orange one has a lovely purple sheen to it. And look at the green stripes inside the glass"--trails of green that were embedded into the molten mix and stretched to suggest the stalk of an onion plant. "In the gold one they were never executed in the base. Maybe they had a bad day at the factory."
Rachen is joking, of course, but glass is not an easy medium. To complicate matters, the turn of the century brought a new aesthetic and new standards on how glass should be decorated. Two movements came out of this effusive, ebullient time: Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Flaws were part of the package, but so were masterpieces.
Now, decades later, Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass are nearly as coveted as when they were fresh and new, though the prices are much higher. While one exceptional Tiffany lamp sold for $2.8 million last December, there are numerous smaller and more commonly found pieces that are inspiring for their exuberance or elegance, their whimsy or power.
The works of Emile Gallé, the Daum family, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique can be viewed and appreciated at many museums, but increasingly American collectors are stepping into a market that has stabilized after being pushed to record heights by the Japanese collecting boom of the late 1980s. The issue now, notes avid glass collector and dealer David Weinstein, involves "the question of taste--whom do you want to take home?"
In the middle-to late-nineteenth century, glassmakers, like painters, found themselves at a crossroads. Glassmakers throughout Europe had gained the upper hand on their craft through a number of techniques bred by the Industrial Revolution. For decades they turned out picture-perfect replicas of Grecian-style urns, Romanesque vases, Renaissance Revival goblets and other works modeled on historic forms. The designs incorporated symmetrical garlands and swags, and they were celebrated for their cool and refined sense of proportion.
But to some, the works had become boring and repetitive. What was missing was a decidedly unique approach to glass. Just as the impressionists Edouard Manet and Claude Monet rejected the rigidity and finicky detail of the French art academy, so glass artisans throughout Europe began to reject the traditional styles that had been reworked and repackaged for decades. Further, they felt that mass-produced works in glass were of middling quality, lacking the more refined and exacting touch of individual handiwork.
The French branch of the movement became known as Art Nouveau, after a shop of the same name in Paris. Among the most accomplished of the Art Nouveau glassmakers was Emile Gallé, whose father had married into a glass-making family. Gallé was privileged to have had a good education, studies and travels in England and Germany (where he met Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner), and the good fortune to be around during a time of invention and individuality.
Gallé, whose shop was located in the northeast French town of Nancy, started as a purist in the 1870s, preferring to make glass that was clear or lightly tinted, in shapes that had been around for millennia. By the 1880s, however, he had begun to feel a need to break away from the traditional styles. In his Ecrits pour L'Art, from 1884 to 1889, he wrote, "My own work consists above all in the execution of personal dreams: to dress crystal in tender and terrible roles, to compose for it the thoughtful faces of pleasure or tragedy...to impose upon it qualities I should like to have in order to incarnate my dream and design....I have sought to make crystal yield forth all the tender or fierce expression I can summon when guided by a hand that delights in it."
In form, Gallé's dreams were largely floral. He had studied chemistry and served as an apprentice to a glassmaker, but he had also studied botany and had a sincere and profound love of plants. In his glasswork, he wanted to capture the beauty and wildness of nature, its flowing, asymmetrical, and random character. In Gallé's hands, that meant floral form vases with curling bases and slender, sleek lines full of undulating curves. Cylindrical vases were encased at the base in leaves and fronds. Flowers and beetles protruded from the smooth glass surface, adding dimension and depth.
Gallé had a vast array of techniques to draw upon for his expressive designs. Cameo glass, the process of creating a vase, say, in one color and then immersing it in another, had been around for millennia. The second layer could be cut away by using a fast-spinning wheel, leaving a design in relief in the outer layer. Alternately, in acid etching, an acid-resistant finish was painted on the outer layer in the form of a design. When the entire vase was dipped into an acid bath, the acid etched away untreated areas, eating its way down to the first layer.
The glass itself came in different colors, and gold or silver foil could be added to the mix. Gallé filed a patent for the process of marquetry, which involved scooping out a section of a vase and patching in glass of another color. Applications, or chunks of glass in contrasting hues, were attached to a form and worked with a variety of instruments until they were molded into shape.
The effects Gallé achieved were breathtaking. While the forms tended to be simple, the surface of the glass itself was wonderously varied. Wheel carving left thin ridges that, when well lit, revealed ripples of texture. Layers of raised glass that were applied provided decorations--flowers, of course, or insects--in relief, which were also carved. In an exceptional Gallé piece, one can find five or six different surfaces, ranging from ice-smooth to etched or ribbed.
But Gallé wasn't the only one who was turning out these masterpieces. By 1876, the Daum family of Nancy acquired a glass factory by default. Under the direction of Jean Daum, the shop made crystals for watches, but sons Antoinin and Auguste soon turned it into an art-glass haven. Antoinin, more of an artist than his business-minded older brother, saw Gallé's floral works at the 1889 International Exposition in Paris. (This and other contemporary expositions were like moving Epcot Centers that combined science, technology and art.) Antoinin was impressed. A year later, as he lay sick in bed, he began sketching floral decorations for vases and other wares. Soon, works that came out of the Daum workshop were as lively and well crafted as those that emerged from Gallé's studio.
While Gallé and Daum were breaking boundaries in France, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the son of American jeweler Charles Louis Tiffany, was doing the same thing in New York. Tiffany, too, visited expositions and then opened a massive workshop in Astoria, Queens, where his workers were largely given free rein to experiment. Tiffany started with windows and later moved on to lamp shades and the bases they sat on. In 1880, he patented a version of iridescent glass that he called Favrile glass.
Tiffany's work was remarkably refined and elegant. His Favrile glass was more sturdy than its delicate, shimmering appearance would suggest. Generally, Tiffany's vases were more restrained than those of Gallé and Daum, with cleaner lines and less ornate application. His heavier lava vases, with their mottled, encrusted surfaces, seemed to capture the essence of the powerful aftermath of a horrifyingly beautiful cataclysmic event.
Tiffany's initial fame derived from his iridescent glass, but it was for his lamp shades and bronze lamp bases that he achieved historial significance. In 1895, Tiffany worked with Thomas Edison to fashion lighting fixtures for the interior of the Lyceum Theater in New York, and his creations were unlike anything that had ever existed. Where his European Art Nouveau counterparts were completely absorbed in the lilting, sinewy beauty of organic forms, Tiffany rendered his designs in mosaics of flat glass that were cut from sheets and fitted into larger patterns.
The glass itself was extraordinary. Tiffany hired chemists and European glassmakers to come up with a formula for colored glass that would be as translucent as jewels. To depict a leaf, Tiffany might use as many as four pieces of green glass, each in a different shade. For a poppy, hues of crimson would turn into red, then pale rose, then near white. When this glass was lit, it was as if the sun were reflecting off a plant in the early morning.
At the time, Tiffany's works were popular both in America and, surprisingly, in Europe, where many people still considered America to be a provincial, boorish outpost. Tiffany exhibited in the Paris Galléry L'Art Nouveau, alongside Gallé and Daum. He was the first American artist to achieve international stature.
By the early 1920s, the elaborate designs of the Art Nouveau style had run their course and were decried as excessively ornate. Gallé had died in 1904, and although his firm continued to produce glass, its artisans had lost the distinctive touch that characterized his designs. Tiffany produced virtually no work after 1918, although his studios remained open for another 10 years. Daum was one of the firms that made the transition from Art Nouveau to the harder-edged lines of Art Deco, in which curves gave way to angles, in a series of large, deeply etched vases in handsome blues and greens, as well as other wares.
But the undisputed--and much resented--champion of Art Deco glass was Rene Lalique, a French jewelry designer turned glass designer. Lalique was an early exponent of the Art Nouveau handcrafted improvisational techniques, and was among the first jewelers to substitute semiprecious stones for diamonds. By 1904, he had become interested in glass. Initially, he worked within elaborate molds, using the lost-wax (or cire perdue) method to create vases and other objects that featured decorative elements in high relief. He made a wax mold, encased it in plaster, drilled a few holes into the bottom, and heated the mold until the wax drained out. He then poured molten glass into the mold. When the mold cooled, it was broken and the vase was removed. In some cases, the piece was then stained to highlight the design work.
The results were astonishing. Works made from this process appear frosted. They invariably have a luminesence and an almost velvety, textured feel to them. In one piece, owned by David Weinstein, you can see the artisan's fingerprint in the surface of a covered dish. The details of these works are remarkably fine, the images in relief deeply sculpted. One vase suggests the later surrealist-tinged works of M. C. Escher, an artist known for his eye-confounding etchings, as dozens of fish heads jut straight out from the vase's surface. These cire perdue works are among the most coveted forms of turn-of-the-century glass, and their prices can exceed $100,000. Just this past March, a lost-wax vase sold for $409,500 at Christie's New York, the highest amount ever paid at an auction for a Lalique work.
But by 1910 Lalique had largely given up the technique and had started making straight mold-blown and cast-mold designs. Gallé, Daum and Tiffany had also created mass-produced pieces as the demand for their work intensified. Gallé's factory could knock out many vases of etched cameo glass a day, with perfectly attractive but somewhat undistinctive patterns and effects. The same was true of Daum and Tiffany. Lalique's output, however, was limited exclusively to the molded and pressed glass.
While there was virtually no hands-on detailing of these works, they were quite accomplished. Lalique managed to achieve a crispness in the details, which ran from bands of nude women in polished relief set on a vase to serpents, fish and antelope--staple images of the Art Deco period. Quality was consistent, and the value of an item was determined by its color and its rarity: an opalescent white Formose vase with a fish pattern might sell for $2,000, while a striking red or green piece would be worth $8,000 to $10,000 today.
Prices vary substantially for works by Tiffany as well. His shades come in different sizes, for floor or table lamps, and color is a key factor, notes Harry Wallace of the Lillian Nassau Galléry in New York. "Certainly a blue dragonfly [lamp shade] is more popular than a yellow dragonfly or a green dragonfly," he says, although brilliant shades of any color can go at a premium. While Tiffany's more easily found shades and bases go for $40,000 to $100,000, his vases and smaller works sell for between $1,000 and $15,000. With Gallé and Daum, the handcrafted works of art glass can easily sell for more than $50,000 and go as high as $1 million. Naturally, you pay for beauty, execution and distinctiveness. But the handsome, acid-etched works of cameo glass can generally be had for as little as $5,000 to $10,000.
Key considerations in choosing are condition (it should be flawless, with no cracks or chips), your plans for it (how the item will fit in with your home or office) and what type of illumination you'll use. Thick-walled vases and lamps are dark and lifeless unless they're properly lit, either from underneath or with the light casting down into them. Some collectors place small lights inside the vessels themselves to highlight their incredible range of colors and effects.
As is true of any antique, there are fakes in art glass. Telltale signs vary, but would-be art-glass collectors should buy only from well-established galleries. Any decent dealer or auction-house specialist will be able to help you develop your eye, which comes simply from viewing and holding hundreds of works of art. Barbara Deisroth, of the 20th Century Decorative Works of Art department at Sotheby's, understands just how essential touch is. "I respond to a painting," she says, "but when I pick up a piece I get a better sense of the time, of the period, of the people who used it and the quality."
These are the things that make glass distinctive. While paintings can be exquisite, and a photograph or a print might be a wonderful document of an artist's vision, a finely made work in glass is sculptural and radiant, a world in itself, full of mystery and beauty.
Andrew Decker is a freelance journalist based in New York and a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine.